The Lessons of a Weekend (and a Run-In with the Law)

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June 15th 2011
Published: June 16th 2011
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At Least We Got Free Cokes?At Least We Got Free Cokes?At Least We Got Free Cokes?

A perk of Saturday: going to the Coca-Cola stand to get a sugary sweet treat.
Me: It was a fiasco. Do you know this word?
Audifax: How do you say it?
Me: fee-AS-co.
Audifax: Hm. What does it mean? fee-AS-co.
Me: It means ‘a total mess.’ When everything goes wrong, you say it was a fiasco.
Audifax: Ah, fiasco…

The harshest lessons I’ve learned to date: never take a picture without permission, and try hard not to give your number to people – even if you need to talk to them for research.

No Photographs, Please

Saturday was a strange day from the very beginning. I had been roped into walking around the neighborhood with a man named Desire, who I originally interviewed to learn about the peace organization he worked for. Unfortunately, he seemed to have very little information for me. Worse, he now had my phone number; every night after we met, he called me to say goodnight. It didn’t help that the sound of his voice made me feel as if I was talking to a cross between Hannibal Lecter and a robot. Even worse, I had agreed to go running with him, due to a miscommunication during our interview. Our last conversation went something like this:

Permission for Research!Permission for Research!Permission for Research!

If you do research here, keep this letter with you. Make a copy of it. Get it stamped by the local government every place you go for research. Basically, treat it like your intra-Burundian research passport.
Desire: Do you recognize my voice?
Me: What?
Desire: Do you recognize my voice?
Me: No.
Desire: I am Desire.
Me: Hello.
Desire: I called to say goodnight.
Me: Okay, goodnight.
Desire: I will see you on Saturday.
Me: Wait! I cannot go with you on Saturday, I have no running clothes.

Me: Hello?
Desire: I don’t understand.
Me: Samedi. Je ne peux pas courir avec vous.
Desire: Ah! Okay. I will come to your house at eleven. Goodbye.
Me: What? Goodbye.

I heard a knock at the gate. My plan was to turn my phone off and stay inside until he left, but Josiah offered to join me so I wouldn’t be alone. So, off we went.

Instead of running, we took a surprisingly enjoyable walk through a nearby district. We got to see a different side of Bujumbura – though it’s just down the road, Nyakabiga is a world away from our own Kigobe. The houses are smaller; the people are MUCH poorer. Churches. Everywhere. And a new mosque being built, not too far from where we live. It was a side of Buja that I hadn't seen before - one of the many
Under ConstructionUnder ConstructionUnder Construction

Bujumbura-Mairie is a rapidly expanding area. That means lots of things are being constructed. Roads, churches, businesses, and at least one mosque.
densely populated districts surrounding the center of the city. Our walk was peppered with outdoor markets, salons, pharmacies, Coca-Cola stands, local restaurants, and the people traveling to and from all of them. This was a great experience. Perhaps I was wrong about Desire…

As we walked down the main road towards our house, we heard that the President's convoy was passing by. I really want a picture. But, was that okay? Desire seemed to think it was fine – even a bit amusing – that we wanted pictures of the President. I’ll be sure to repay the favor when he comes to America, by telling him that everyone loves it when you run up to our President with a large unmarked package in your hands. Great fun.

“I think they saw you take the photo,” Josiah said. I turned around to see the last army truck in the convoy making a U-turn back towards us. Few experiences in my life have been more intimidating than when 15 soldiers with guns slung over their shoulders parked their truck, unloaded, and surrounded us. The captain came to me and held his hand out - my heart sank as I handed

A neighborhood close by our house.
my camera to him. Taking pictures of the President is forbidden in Burundi. Know this. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I was asked to delete the photos - simple enough. However, the President’s convoy was getting further away from the soldiers every second they stayed with me, and they needed to catch up. The captain handed my camera off to a policeman standing nearby, who said he was going to take the camera to "the station." But, what station? I tried not to look around me, but I could feel a crowd gathering. At least 20 or 30 people surrounded us in the median of the road. Everyone had an opinion regarding my ‘crime’, and they all felt the need to be heard (in Kirundi, of course). Audifax says that Burundians do this - when someone is in trouble, they all argue about what they think should happen. Regardless of what they were saying, the situation was completely out of my hands. Finally, one man in the crowd simply came up to us and said, "Be quiet." Yes, it was time to do just that. I settled for a phone number and left, before things got any worse.
Boulevard de 28 NovembreBoulevard de 28 NovembreBoulevard de 28 Novembre

This is the road we walk up to the bus. It's also the road the President's convoy came down on Saturday.

My precious camera. I love my camera. On the other hand, it's just a camera - not worth crying over. We bought ourselves some ice cream at the nearby market and slumped into our chairs, the day’s events replaying themselves in our minds. How could we (I) have been so naïve? We might have stayed there longer, but Desire came to join us - he seemed to have reappeared out of thin air, nowhere to be found during the whole camera incident. We had nothing to say, so he broke the silence. “How did it go?”

The Reunion

As it turned out, someone in the crowd saw a way to turn my moment of crisis into an opportunity. While I was talking to the policeman, my phone was taken out of my bag. Talk about adding insult to injury. In addition to buying a new phone, I prepared myself to pay for a hefty bribe (to both the policeman and the army captain) in order to get my camera back. Josiah’s translator, Audifax, made all the phone calls, negotiating with the policeman, and then with the army captain. There was talk of an investigation – into what? How much was this going to cost me?

It looked increasingly doubtful that I would ever see my camera again. Suddenly, two days later, the captain of the army called to say that he had my camera, and I should come pick it up. When we arrived, he greeted us with a smile, asked me to delete the photos, and allowed me to leave with my camera. No bribes, no interrogations. All they wanted was to finish watching me delete the pictures? I couldn’t believe it.


Sunday, the morning before I got my camera back, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. My neighbor began playing church music at 4 in the morning! Was this absolutely necessary? By 6 o’ clock, I had considered collecting a bunch of rocks and using the tiny radio as aiming practice – I could see it from my bedroom window…

But the day got so much better! Josiah and I went to church in Kamenge, a neighborhood that is actually going to be one of my research sites. Audifax lives there with his wife and four children. The service was in Kirundi, but it felt good to be there anyway. As we walked through the neighborhood afterwards, children ran after us saying that we were the priests – we rather liked this title for ourselves. In fact, I give you all permission to call me your priest whenever you like.

After church, we met some new friends of ours at Pinnacle 19, an untapped gem. It’s a rather secluded hotel/restaurant on the beach of Lake Tanganyika. The prices are reasonable, the food is tasty, and the view is beautiful. I have to admit, it was a wonderful feeling to just be… me. I wasn’t a muzungu. I went swimming. Floating in the water with the sun on my face made me feel so free.

Leaving Pinnacle, we noticed something staring at us just off the main path. Lulu, a three-year-old chimpanzee has quite the playground. The owner hopes to keep expanding it to surround the entire resort. Without getting into a discussion about the ethics of keeping animals like chimps in cages, I’ll just say that she is fantastic! And I plan on coming back to see her, now that I have a camera.

As if we needed a more perfect ending to the day, we came across a small bar on our way home. Some men were sharing a few bottles of Amarula. Amarula! We love this stuff. We tried to buy some, only to find out that the bottles were filled with homemade banana beer. Even better! This brew was definitely local, and they were nice enough to share some with us. The opaque liquid still had brown flecks floating in it - sweet and tart, with a punch at the end… and an unmistakable banana flavor. I’d look for more, but I don’t know where to buy it!

Wait, I'm not the only one?

Oh, Burundi, I know so little about you. I’ve since learned that many people have had their cameras taken, at one point or another – it’s best not to photograph anything important here without an official letter of permission. A church, a statue, and definitely the President. At the beach, one of my friends mentioned that they actually have her husband’s name written down at the police station because he’s had to negotiate on behalf of so many people who have had their cameras taken. She even knew one person who jokingly said he took pictures “to make money” when a guard asked about his photos. Poor choice of words - the assumption was that he took the pictures to sell them to a rebel group. Oops?

And sometimes, even when you do everything right, it's still possible to be stopped and taken into the station. The police once took a researcher to the office of the local government just for being there – he didn’t think she had any business in such a rural area. * If I had been taken into the station, I'm not sure what I would have done.

It seems everyone, at some point, is confronted with the reality of how little power they have here. We're never completely in control anywhere - but it's hard to come across such a poignant reminder, back home. Alas. Burundi, I am learning… and if this is the worst thing to happen to me all summer - in a country where most people don't get to trounce off to the beach to forget their problems - I'll consider myself pretty flippin' lucky.

*When you do research here, you have to first write a letter to the Ministry of the Interior, who will then tell you whether you have permission or not. This shouldn't take more than 2-4 days. Your letter will say that you have permission, provided you notify all local governments that you are doing research while you are there. Make sure you do, in fact, take the time to notify the local governments.


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